Compelled Speech is Not Free

At first glance, Senate Bill 226 may seem harmless. It is portrayed simply as an effort to provide voters with the comfort of additional “transparency” in the election process.

But we must look closer. The simple transparency that SB266 claims to provide will actually undermine our fundamental first amendment rights to political speech, and that’s why I opposed this bill on the Senate floor.

Our founders very wisely understood that self-government relies on an informed populace. As citizens, we rely on the free exchange of ideas so that we may sift through the information that comes our way and decide for ourselves which facts and opinions will inform our voting decisions. It is the responsibility of government to assure this free flow of information is not disrupted.

However, if the information we receive during that election is actually controlled or compelled by government, can we really call it a free exchange of ideas?

The answer is obvious, and it is exactly why government bureaucrats have no business micromanaging what information we are allowed to see, what information we must see, nor how information is presented to us.

Yet that’s exactly what SB226 will do. It compels those who produce political mailers to include specific information demanded by the government, and mandates precisely how that information will be presented.

SB226 requires that when “slate mailers” are sent by organizations representing the view point of public safety officials, the number of members the organization represents must be stated on the piece. SB226 also compels slate mailers to follow arbitrary mandates as to what font size, type face, formatting, and contrasting colors must be used.

While the bill may not seem like a burden on free speech on its face, SB226’s mandates mean there is less room for the organization to share their message with voters. Thus, its impact in the free exchange of ideas could be limited when compared to others who are not subject to the same restrictions.

If the government can mandate the inclusion of specific information when it comes to one issue, such as public safety, what’s to stop it deciding it must craft similar restraints for other topics, such as climate change, or education? If government can restrict the messages on one medium, in this case slate mailers, we can reasonably anticipate the restrictions will eventually spread to other mediums, such as newspaper ads, or blogs, or social media posts.

Allowing government to decide for us what we can be exposed to, and in what manner, is a very dangerous threat to our First Amendment rights. It is similar to campus officials at public universities deciding which speakers and messages students are allowed to hear, and which messages they must be “protected” from.  It is the business of government to assure that all messages can be heard, not to decide for itself which messages are safe for us to hear, or what information must accompany the message.

Compelled speech is not free speech. True freedom, including freedom of expression, can be a messy business. But freedom sure beats the alternative. SB226 is the alternative.